Monday, April 5, 2010

Culture Clash

After listening on Easter Sunday to news stories about the Catholic Church being secouée and ébranlée by what Cardinal Soldano had the temerity to dismiss as jacasseries (in the French translation; ABC News preferred the more delicate "idle gossip"), I was amused to wake up on Monday morning to discover this review, by a puzzled French philosopher, of Richard Swinburne's Is There a God?, a treatise in the finest tradition of British analytical philosophy. To say that there is something of a culture clash here is to put it mildly. The reviewer, Denis Moreau, first has to persuade his readers that the whole idea isn't daft: in France, according to Bernard Sève, the philosophical question of the existence of God has for generations been considered "obsolete, at best something to be stuffed away in the closet reserved for the history of outmoded ideas," not a question for active investigation under the rubric of philosophy.

Well, perhaps. I'm not sure that "rational theology," the heading under which Moreau would like to place Swinburne's work, is consuming many neurons in Anglo-American philosophy departments either. And as for l'Être Suprême in French philo, I might note that I recently dipped into a Harvard colloquium on "Derrida and Religion," in which any number of learned scholars promised to turn Derrida into a theologian of sorts, albeit--it seemed from the introductory lecture, which was all I could manage--in a distinctly ironic mode, distinguished by punning on the word "Adieu" (variously read as à Dieu and a-Dieu, get it?). So, if "rational theology" is flourishing in England, "irrational theology" is apparently flourishing in France, or at least in that tiny colony of American intellectuals that feasts on the French-accented post-Nietzschean post-modern.

All of this high elucubration on the Summum Bonum no doubt has something to do with the evident refusal of the faithful to shed their beliefs, as modernization theory used to say they should, and with their even more evident inclination to act on those beliefs: witness any number of items from the recent news, from the armed militia of God in the American Midwest to a pair of blonde "Jihad Janes" prepared to assassinate a Danish cartoonist to evangelical churches springing up across France (according to a France2 JT report) to the Belgian burqa ban (the Belgians, apparently, don't read the opinions of the French Conseil d'État).

Perhaps some kind reader will explain to me what links all these phenomena together. I am as puzzled by the analytical theologians as I am by the post-Derrideans and the Hutaree. Perhaps, at bottom, I was doomed by my mathematical training to think like Laplace, who, when asked by Napoleon why there was no mention of God in his theory of the cosmos, replied, "Sire, je n'avais pas besoin de cette hypothèse-là." Many people do, however, and it seems that one really ought to try to understand them. I don't, however, expect to find much help in Richard Swinburne's book, even in French translation. (On the other, Mitchell Silver's book, linked to above, has been of some help.)